1850 Fugitive Slave Law

By Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College

Author: Cooper Wingert (page 2 of 4)

Research Trip to Philadelphia

During the winter break, Dickinson’s History Department funded a research trip for this Honors project to Philadelphia, where over two days I conducted archival research at three repositories: the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives.

At the Library Company,  which traces its origins to a lending library founded at the behest of Benjamin Franklin in 1731, I poured over books, pamphlets and scrapbooks from the personal library of U.S. Commissioner (and longtime Library Company member) Edward D. Ingraham. Although there was no material directly dealing with his much-criticized implementation of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, I still uncovered an array of biographical information on the notorious commissioner. A bibliophile, antiquarian and regular auction house bidder, Ingraham–who was in his late 50s by the time he served as U.S. Commissioner–was usually clad in relatively mundane clothes, “a blue dress coat, plain pantaloons and vest,” complemented by a “characteristic hat, small in size and with the brim archly turned up at the sides.” He was, in the eyes of the Philadelphia Daily Reporter, the consummate “book-worm.” [1] Even as he handled fugitive cases throughout the early 1850s, signing warrants of arrest and remanding men and women to bondage, Ingraham was collecting rare books, purchasing autographed letters, visiting auction houses and carefully clipping (and properly citing) newspaper articles on topics that fascinated him for scrapbooks. “How much of his happiness and pride were bound up” in his copy of Shakespeare’s 1623 folio, pondered one sympathetic Philadelphia paper. [2] Of particular interest to Ingraham during the waning years of his life (he died suddenly on November 5, 1854) was a scrapbook about the post office he began scrupulously assembling in August 1851. However, Ingraham was no ordinary stamp collector–instead of collecting stamps, he voraciously collected newspaper articles about stamps, and was particularly engrossed in a controversy over the post office’s new pre-stamped envelopes that spiraled into the public eye in 1853. [3] Ingraham also owned a number of titles related to slavery–ranging from a political speech to a pamphlet containing one Louisiana slaveholder’s instructions on slave management. However, these books contain no notations in his hand (except his name), as the avid collector apparently made a practice of not scrawling notes in the marginalia. [4]

Next, I briefly visited the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, specifically to look at the minute books of the Franklin Fire Company, a group operating out of the Southwark neighborhood of Philadelphia. Prior to leaving for Philadelphia, I had run the names of the individuals Ingraham turned to as deputies during his stint as U.S. commissioner (1850-1854) through newspaper databases, looking for possible connections and insights into how the federally authorized slave catching posses were formed. I had already discovered that one of the special deputies Ingraham regularly relied upon, Southwark constable John Agen, lived in a boarding house run by William Byerly, who himself served as a special deputy to Commissioner Ingraham in the arrest of alleged freedom seeker Henry Massey in September 1854. [5] Searching their names jointly through newspaper databases unearthed a seemingly commonplace article about a trumpet presentation from Philadelphia’s Franklin Fire Company to the Empire Fire Company of New York. However, the members who headed up the Franklin Fire Company’s committee of presentation overlapped with those who composed the posses employed by Commissioner Ingraham, suggesting that the Franklin Fire Company served as something akin to a receptacle for able-bodied men willing to execute the controversial 1850 law–for financial gain. [6] At HSP, I scoured the minutes of the Franklin Fire Company for any references to its members’ involvement in fugitive cases. Despite the lack of specific references to the 1850 law, the minutes helped corroborate details about membership, and also revealed that Byerly was serving as president of the company when he was deputized by Commissioner Ingraham in September 1854. [7]

Afterwards, I headed to the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives, where I poured over Circuit and District court records relating to the law’s enforcement. The Appointment papers yielded valuable insights into the federal courts’ struggle to appoint enough U.S. commissioners to handle the anticipated caseload under the new 1850 law; though the most important find came in the Habeas Corpus files. Those files abounded with writs of habeas corpus filed by anti-slavery attorneys against U.S. Marshals (or in some cases, deputy marshals) in an effort to force the marshal to produce the captive freedom seeker and remove the legal process from the hands of a U.S. commissioner to a more amenable state court. Marshals responding to the writs of habeas corpus usually produced as evidence the warrant of arrest signed by the U.S. commissioner–consequently, many of the warrants still reside within the habeas corpus files, instead of the National Archives’s distinct series of fugitive slave case files. Among the former were a sizable cache of documents related to a September 1853 case which unfolded in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, where three of Commissioner Ingraham’s deputies attempted–and failed–to arrest a freedom seeker, and were later arrested for trespass and assault and battery. The protracted point, counterpoint between Luzerne County, Pennsylvania officials and Federal judges Robert C. Grier (Circuit Court) and John K. Kane (U.S. District Court) produced over 50 pages of depositions and petitions from eyewitnesses, claimants and the deputies themselves, previously untapped by historians. [8]

Moving forward, the trove of documents relating to the Wilkes Barre case will undoubtedly prove crucial in this Honors project, particularly for Chapter 2, which focuses explicitly on the arrest process. My next priority is placing the 1853 case, and the practice of legal retaliation against U.S. commissioners’ deputies, in broader context, particularly in light of the efforts of the incoming Franklin Pierce administration to bolster the law’s enforcement–and support its enforcers.


[1] “Philadelphia Eccentrics,” Philadelphia Daily Reporter, March 16, 1854; The Reporter’s description of “The Book-Worm,” who went unnamed, was part of a series of “sketches of sundry Philadelphians, who are celebrated for their eccentricities, either of person, manner, habits, taste or character.” While the paper avoided naming the subjects of their sketches (to ensure “no one can be offended”), a clipping of this column was inserted in one of Ingraham’s own books, which he had gifted to a friend in 1849. See Edward Ingraham, A Sketch of the Events which preceded the Capture of Washington, by the British, on the Twenty-Fourth of August, 1814 (Philadelphia: Charles Marshall, 1849), Library Company of Philadelphia.

[2] “Sale of Mr. Ingraham’s Library, Autographs, &c.,” Philadelphia Daily Bulletin, March 13, 1855.

[3] Scrapbook, started by Edward Ingraham, August 30, 1851, in Table of Post Offices in the United States on the First Day of January 1851 (Washington, D.C.: W. & J.C. Greer, 1851), Library Company of Philadelphia; “Death of Edward D. Ingraham, Esq.,” Philadelphia Daily Bulletin, November 6, 1854.

[4] The Library Company of Philadelphia holds several slavery-related volumes from Ingraham’s extensive personal library. See Speech of Robert J. Breckinridge: Delivered in the Court-House Yard at Lexington, Ky., on the 12th day of October, 1840 (Lexington, KY: N.L. & J.W. Finnell, 1840); The Orthographic Will of John McDonogh, of Louisiana, Formerly a Citizen of Baltimore (Baltimore: James Lucas, 1850); The Memoranda of Instructions of John McDonogh, Late of Macdonoghville, State of Louisiana, To His Executors, Relative to the Management of His Estate (Baltimore: James Lucas, 1851). For a complete listing of Ingraham’s library upon his death, prepared for the sale in early 1855, see Executrix’ Sale. Miscellaneous Library, of the late E.D. Ingraham, Esq. (Philadelphia:  M. Thomas & Sons, 1855) [WEB]. Curiously, the Library Company’s copy of the Executrix’ Sale was inscribed by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, who donated the book (it is unclear where) on December 4, 1860.

[5] 1850 U.S. Census, Southwark Ward 3, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA, Family 679, Ancestry; For details on the Henry Massey Case, and the hearing (at which Byerly testified) see “U.S. Commissioners’ Office,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1854.

[6] “Trumpet Presentation,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, January 10, 1851; two of the men on the committee, John Agen and John Thornton, had been involved in the arrest of Henry Garnett in October 1850. While Thompson Tully, the third deputy involved in the arrest, was not listed as a member of the committee, two other members of the Tully family were. In addition, William Byerly was part of the committee, and would later become involved in an 1854 case for Ingraham. For details on the deputies who arrested Henry Garnett, see “Important Fugitive Slave Cases in Philadelphia,” Honesdale, PA Wayne County Herald, October 24, 1850.

[7] Minute Book of the Franklin Fire Company, 1838-1854, September 17, 1850, March 14, 1851, March 12, 1852, July 14, 1854, Fire Companies of Philadelphia Collection, Collection Number 0205, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[8] United States ex relat. Jenkins & Crossen v. Chollet, Entry 42-E-11-8.1 and 42-E-11-9.8, Box 1, Habeas Corpus Files, 1848-1862, Record Group 21, National Archives, Philadelphia.

Presentation Gallery

U.S. Commissioner cartoon

Detail from “Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law,” 1851 (House Divided Project)


Hamlet Rendition 1850

(New York Atlas, October 20, 1850)


Mason standing

Virginia senator James Mason (House Divided Project)


Meeker photo

George W. Meeker (Chicago History Museum)


Bross engraving

John A. Bross (Memorial, 1865)

Presentation Preparation

Having put the finishing touches on the Introduction and Chapter 1 of my Honors Thesis, I’ll now need to focus my efforts on next week’s presentation before the History Department. In particular, I’ll be working on synthesizing my findings into a concise and effective presentation format. Discussing the Introduction, which sketches out the trajectory of the entire thesis and its central arguments, will be crucial to showing Department members the intended path of this thesis project. Accordingly, I’ll likely weight the presentation towards the material in the Introduction, with a smaller but still substantive portion devoted to the Chapter 1 and the historiographical evolution of commissioners.

I’ll also be searching for relevant images that can help enliven the presentation and maintain the interest of my audience. The contemporary cartoons I wrote about in another post will almost certainly find their way into my powerpoint presentation, while  images of individuals who are featured in the Introduction and Chapter 1, such as the law’s principal author, Virginia senator James Mason, and commissioners Levi Davis and George W. Meeker, could also make useful additions.

Introduction Editing

Over the past several days, I have been revising and tweaking my Introduction. Although it will likely round out to between 12-13 pages, it is a crucial part of my thesis–introducing readers to the arguments I will refine and expand upon in the three main content chapters. Per Professor Pinsker’s advice, I will also be adding an additional paragraph that will provide an overview of the recent historiographical trends, gesturing towards Chapter 1 as well as showing readers how my work is building on existing scholarship.

Historiographical Writing

As I put the finishing touches on the first half of Chapter 1, which traces the evolving legacy of U.S. Commissioners in the post-war period, I’m turning my full attention to incorporating recent scholarly developments to complete the latter half of the chapter. In particular, this means incorporating the work of Stanley Campbell and Richard Blackett, the scholars whose arguments are most relevant to U.S. Commissioners and my focus on the 1850 law’s enforcement. However, in demonstrating the recent shift away from Campbell’s signature thesis of faithful enforcement, detailed in another post, it also seems increasingly necessary to grapple (however briefly) with the related work of scholars such as Stanley Harrold and Robert Churchill. Discussing their scholarship, which has largely eroded the pillars of Campbell’s argument by showcasing the breadth and ubiquity of Northern resistance to slave catching along the North-South border, could be crucial to situating my own work in a recent scholarly trend that has emphasized the power of anti-slavery violence.

Chapter 1: Drafting the Historiography Section

This weekend, I finished an initial draft of my introduction. For the time being, I will refocus my efforts on completing a draft of Chapter 1, my historiography chapter.

As I have already written the section regarding post-war views of commissioners, my next task will be to connect their evolving legacy in the late 19th century to strands of scholarship. Considering that the first major academic work on the Underground Railroad, authored by Wilbur Siebert, was contemporaneous to many of these laudatory accounts, this may be the best conduit into the latter portion of my first chapter. Notions of legal formalism, which portrayed judicial officers as passive actors, may account for the conspicuous absence of commissioners from the initial scholarship on the Underground Railroad and the 1850 law. Elsewhere, I will also need to work to incorporate the influential work of Stanley Campbell and later Richard Blackett.

Introduction: Progress Report

The introduction is a crucial component of my thesis, not only providing important background and contextual information that will inform the ensuing chapters, but laying out my key arguments. Professor Pinsker suggested that I approach the introduction in the style of an annotated law, which fits well with the thematically structured chapters of my thesis. Accordingly, I am working on developing concise and coherent descriptions of my chapters, while highlighting  the historiographical arguments and contributions I am attempting to make.

In the meantime, I still need to find the most effective way to demonstrate commissioners’ notoriety, while being concise and staying within the parameters of a 10-page introduction.

Chapter 1: Progress Report

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been drafting the first chapter of my thesis. This chapter will explore commissioners’ contemporary notoriety in the 1850s and how their image evolved during the post-war period, before finally tracing portrayals of commissioners through the scholarship of the 20th century to the most recent academic works.

Thus far, I have devoted most of my efforts to the post-war section, in large part because I wanted to allow myself extra time to grapple with the voluminous scholarship that will help me place post-war accounts and memoirs of commissioners in the broader context of late 19th century America.  As noted in my two previous research journal posts, the post-war era witnessed a dramatic evolution in portrayals of these Circuit Court officers acting under the auspices of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. For my historiography chapter, Professor Pinsker advised that I consult both David Blight’s magisterial study of Americans’ evolving memory of the Civil War, Race and Reunion (2001), and the concept of legal formalism, specifically as scholar Timothy Huebner has applied it when examining the post-war legacy of controversial Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. [1] While drawing upon Huebner’s attribution of legal formalism as a defense employed by Taney’s friends and defenders in the 1870s and beyond, I noticed strikingly similar arguments being articulated in post-war accounts of commissioners. In addition, I consulted several scholarly works about legal formalism in order to better understand the notion. [2]

As white Americans’ selective memory-making sidelined issues of race and softened the  popular memory of slavery, the concept of formalism encouraged a view of judicial officials as passive actors, shifting the onus for unpopular decisions from the “whims or caprice” of an individual to the law itself. The result was a series of laudatory accounts which extolled former commissioners as fierce defenders of law and order, while taking pains to separate commissioners’ enactment of their official duties from any personal inclinations about slavery. The “villainous tribe” of commissioners who had dominated the headlines of the 1850s precisely because of their purported pro-slavery proclivities were supplanted in the public consciousness by a coterie of restrained, honorable men, whose hands were tied by the fine print of the statute book, irrespective of their personal sentiments. [3]

Elsewhere, I’ve also started to craft an introduction, though the initial section on commissioners’ contemporary notoriety is proving  difficult. While I’ve been able to demonstrate how individual commissioners were well known by both Northern and Southern readers, I still have to settle upon the most effective way of explaining contemporary awareness of commissioners’ operations––such as their use of deputies to seize and arrest alleged freedom seekers. Newspapers often named deputies involved in apprehending freedom seekers, and generally speaking evinced a fairly nuanced grasp of the law’s operations. Integrating this (however briefly) into my discussion of commissioners will be the next challenge I face.


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Timothy S. Huebner, “Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond—and before—Dred Scott,” Journal of American History 97:1 (June 2010): 32-33.

[2] William M. Wiecek, The Lost World of Classical Legal Thought: Law and Ideology in America, 1886-1937 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6-7, 64-122; Grant Gilmore, The Ages of American Law (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 36-39; Morton J. Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 253-266.

[3] Martin R. Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, (Philadelphia: by the author, 1852), 154-155; “Another Deed of Darkness,” Pennsylvania Freeman, December 11, 1851.

Richard Hildreth’s Atrocious Judges (1856)

As I begin drafting my historiography chapter, it is important that I demonstrate how prominent––and infamous––the U.S. Commissioners handling fugitive cases were during the 1850s, before segueing to their evolving legacy during the postwar period. While my previous post explored how the contemporary cartoon literature harnessed the tropes of tyrannical authority and unchecked power when depicting commissioners and hearings under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, this post unpacks how one anti-slavery journalist, attorney and novelist applied those themes in his contemporary writings.

Helping to crystalize the image of the tyrannical commissioner was Richard Hildreth’s provocative tome Atrocious Judges (1856). A Bostonian and anti-slavery attorney, Hildreth was no stranger to the law’s practical operations, having squared off in the hearing room against Commissioner George T. Curtis, as well as helping to spearhead the campaign to remove one of the city’s other commissioners, Edward Loring. Compiling a series of biographical sketches of English judges authored by the British politician Lord John Campbell, Hildreth explicitly linked the abusive judges of 16th and 17th century England’s notorious Star Chamber to what he asserted was their “only American parallel”––U.S. Commissioners operating under the mandate of the 1850 law. [1]

Hildreth’s edited volume only heightened the apprehensions about commissioners’ powers that had been festering among many Northerners for more than five years. An advertisement for Hildreth’s book pointedly likened rendition hearings under the 1850 statute to “an American Star Chamber,” while another notice applauded the author’s timely warning about the perils of “judicial tyranny.” Joining the fray, the New York Tribune lent its support to Hildreth, drawing on longstanding Jeffersonian concerns about the dangers of an unchecked judiciary. The 1850 law, the Tribune warned, “has studded the country all over with a host… of judicial mercenaries,” who were empowered to “set at defiance the State Courts and the State authorities” and “spend any amount of the public money in hiring blackguard cutthroats to assist them and the Marshal in doing it.” There was no tangible difference, the paper concluded, between “the atrocious Judges of Charles II and his brother and the atrocious Judges of the times of Fillmore and Pierce,” except that Northerners were not fighting a monarch, but rather attempting to “shake off” the tyranny of “slaveholding domination.” [2]

Several years earlier, Hildreth had also brought his scorn for commissioners into the realm of fiction, in an expanded 1852 edition of his novel The White Slave, which included a new chapter in the wake of the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. While Harriet Beecher Stowe did not raise the specter of commissioners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), just months later, Hildreth did precisely that in his reissue of The White Slave (originally published as The Slave in 1836), penning a scathing and detailed description of one fictional commissioner’s operation. Taking stock of the “slave catching commissioner,” his constable and a Circuit Court judge who entered as a “secret partner,” Hildreth sardonically observed that the three unscrupulous men “play beautifully into each other’s hands.” These “patriots and Union-saviours,” Hildreth disdainfully noted, succeeded in establishing “a general slave-catching and kidnapping business.” Set in Philadelphia, the trio of dubious characters were seemingly modeled off Philadelphia Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham, the notorious slave catcher George F. Alberti and Circuit Court justice Robert Grier. It was likely no coincidence that the name of Hildreth’s fictitious constable, Grip Curtis, closely resembled that of Boston commissioner George Ticknor Curtis, whom the novelist especially loathed. However, this brief fictional description of a commissioner’s operation helps illustrate contemporary familiarity with the law’s operations. [3]

While Hildreth is undoubtedly a crucial figure for my opening chapter, my challenge moving forward will be to find the best way to incorporate both Atrocious Judges and Hildreth’s fictional work in my section on commissioners’ contemporary notoriety.


[1] Richard Hildreth (ed.), Atrocious Judges: Lives of Judges Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1856), 35, 158-161, [WEB]; Robert M. Cover, “Atrocious Judges: Lives of Judges Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression,” Columbia Law Review 68:5 (May 1968): 1003-1008; Robert M. Cover, Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), 149-158, 179; Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 255; Robert N. Strassfeld, “Atrocious Judges and Odious Courts Revisited,” Case Western Reserve Law Review 56:4 (Summer 2006): 899-900; Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 528.

[2] New York Evening Post, December 24, 1855; “A New Book by Richard Hildreth,” Washington, D.C. National Era, January 1, 1856; “Atrocious Judges,” New York Tribune, March 1, 1856.

[3] Richard Hildreth, The White Slave; Another Picture of Slave Life in America (London: George Routledge & Company, 1852), 236, [WEB].

U.S. Commissioners in the Cartoon Literature of the 1850s

As I continue to explore sources for the opening chapter of my thesis, I am turning to the contemporary cartoon literature of the 1850s. Visual depictions of commissioners themselves, as well as the arrest, hearing or rendition process, offer valuable insights into how Americans digested and understood the operations of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

Hamlet rendition Hail Columbia

First appearing in the New York Atlas on October 13, 1850, this dramatic and provocative depiction of Hamlet’s rendition was reprinted days later in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. (New York Anti-Slavery Standard, October 17, 1850, Accessible Archives)

Perhaps the first rendering of the law in action, the engraving “Hamlet in Chains” appeared in the New York Atlas on October 13, 1850. The Sunday weekly provided its readers with a dramatized version of the rendition of James Hamlet, the first alleged freedom seeker returned under the auspices of the 1850 law. The Atlas’ engraving contrasts Hamlet’s plight with a cheerful crowd of complicit but inattentive white onlookers, and the nation’s hypocritical claims to be the “home of the oppressed” and a land where “all men are born equal.” In crafting Hamlet’s cry––”Am I not a man and a Brother”––the engravers borrowed a familiar slogan of anti-slavery campaigns, in much the same way they depicted the alleged freedom seeker in a loin cloth, another trope of anti-slavery iconography. A man or horseback, perhaps U.S. Marshal Henry Talmadge, appears ready to forcibly return Hamlet to bondage. Just days later, the engraving was reprinted and praised by another New York serial, the National Anti-Slavery Standard. “The engraving tells its own story,” the paper added, noting that it ably captured “the outrage upon Liberty and Humanity which, in the name of law, was perpetrated in this city.” Hamlet, with his “chained and upraised arms and imploring look to Heaven” was pleading his humanity, the paper claimed, even as “the multitude behind him” seemed indifferent to his fate.  [1]


Hamlet Rendition 1850

The New York Atlas depicts the rendition hearing of alleged fugitive James Hamlet. (New York Atlas, October 20, 1850)

In its next edition, the Atlas included an engraving of the hearing room that evoked many of the fears Northerners harbored about the immense powers the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law imbued in commissioners. The paper tellingly juxtaposed Hamlet, kneeling before Commissioner Alexander Gardiner and clothed only in a loin cloth, with the assortment of patriotic symbols that adorn the hearing room wall. A banner reading “Hail Columbia, Happy Land,” and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, bearing the quote “Where Liberty Dwells, There Is My Country,” gives lie to the nation’s complicity with the institution of slavery. As scholar Jeannine DeLombard notes, the kneeling bondsmen clothed only in a loin cloth harkened back to a symbol used in British campaigns against the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, providing readers with “a familiar sentimental icon of the innocent, suffering slave.” [2] Meanwhile, Commissioner Gardiner decrees the fugitive’s fate from aloft a throne, a symbol of despotic authority, while two armed marshals stand poised to whisk Hamlet away. The Atlas‘ depiction of Gardiner, coming just weeks after the law’s passage, reveals a great deal about Northerners’ apprehensions over the drastic expansion of the Federal judiciary, specifically as it manifested itself through the new powers placed in U.S. Commissioners. Connoting Gardiner’s post as U.S. Commissioner with tropes of tyrannical, unchecked power helps illustrate how Northerners opposed to the law viewed the commissioner and the “summary process” of the commissioner’s hearing room.


October 1850 engraving

“Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law” followed on the heels of the pair of Atlas engravings. (Library of Congress)

Just weeks later, in late October 1850, the New York firm of Hoff & Bloede issued its own engraving, from the hand of Theodor Kaufmann, entitled “Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law.” [3] A group of four freedom seekers are pursued by a contingent of armed slave catchers, who are traversing a cornfield. Two slave catchers have fired on the group, and two of the freedom seekers are felled by the bullets. The law, the engraving strongly implies, gives free license to barbaric acts of violence. Much like the Atlas engravings that preceded his own work, Kaufmann contrasts the bloody hunt for freedom seekers with a Bible verse and the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, a not so subtle jab at the law’s flagrant violation of avowed Christian and American principles.


1851 Engraving

This 1851 engraving “Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law,” was first published in Boston. (Library of Congress)

Later in 1851, a Boston firm released yet another engraving criticizing the law’s operations, fittingly titled “Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law.” [4] On the left, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison fend off what appears to be a U.S. Commissioner or U.S. Marshal, adorned with a star on his hat, who is riding on the back of Secretary of State Daniel Webster. The commissioner, with rope in one hand and a slave collar in the other, bellows, “Don’t back out Webster, if you do we’re ruind,” a reference to Webster’s robust support for the 1850 law, in hopes of gaining Southern backing for the 1852 Whig presidential nomination. Webster, meanwhile, clutches the Constitution in his left hand, a sardonic reference to his avowal to protect the Constitution and Union at all costs. Both the “Practical Illustration” and the Atlas’ earlier engraving “Hamlet in Court,” offer unflattering depictions of commissioners. However, whereas the Atlas portrayed Commissioner Gardiner as a source of despotic, unchecked power, the commissioner in the “Practical Illustration” cartoon appears rougher and cruder, a gruff hireling engaged in a dirty, nefarious business.


[1] “The Fugitive Slave Law…. Hamlet in Chains,” New York National Anti-Slavery Standard, October 17, 1850; Jeannine Marie DeLombard, Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 35-36.

[2] DeLombard, Slavery on Trial, 35-38.

[3] Bibliographic information from the Library of Congress.

[4] Bibliographic information from the Library of Congress; the engraving has been attributed to the artist Edward Williams Clay.

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